Biafran pound still being spent ... at Togo, Benin Republic border towns •It’s N270 to Biafran £1•Presidency, CBN, Ohanaeze react
Sunday PUNCH June 5, 2005
Gbenga Osinaike, just back from Togo and Ghana
The currency spent in the defunct Republic of Biafra during the Nigerian civil war (1967-70), Biafran Pound, has surreptitiously crept into the currency market, serving as the legal tender in some communities along the West African coast.
Investigations carried out by Sunday Punch showed that the money is being spent in the border town between Togo and Republic of Benin, while some currency hawkers also exchange it for the naira and other currencies in the border town between Ghana and Togo.
One Biafran pound still bears the signature of Dr. Syvelster Ugo, the then Governor of the Central Bank of the defunct Biafran Republic and the picture of a palm tree. Its back has the coat of arms of the republic with the inscription: “peace, unity and freedom.”
What is, however, baffling about the currency is that it has more value than the Nigerian naira and it is openly accepted as a legal tender in the affected communities.
When Sunday Punch visited the Ghana and Togo border town, known as Aflo, some of the money vendors were eager to sell the currency. They, however, insisted on selling one Biafran pound at N800. The scenario at the Togo/Benin Republic border, known as Helakondi, was different as the vendors willingly sold one pound for between N200 and N270 to our correspondent. Some food vendors in Togo were telling passersby that they were willing to accept Biafran pounds.
In Ghana, the vendors were discreet about the trade. One of them, who identified himself simply as Tony, told our correspondent that the money was not accepted as a legal tender in Ghana, but that Ghana was a transit route for the currency.
He said: "We get the money from s! ome Igbo people in Nigeria. They bring it here for us and we cherish it so much.
“That is why the value is higher than the Nigerian naira. This is the money that is being spent by some Igbo communities in Ivory Coast. Many of them are travellers. On their way to other parts of West Africa, they stop by and exchange the currency for the naira with them. They are the only people who buy the money from us."
Tony, who said he had lived in Ghana for about 15 years, told us that some of the notes were just printed. "I think the Igbo are trying to make a statement with the money. It may surprise you that some of the people, who have the money, are not willing to sell it because they are looking forward to a time when the Biafran Republic will come to stay."
While displaying some ignorance about the defunct Biafran Republic, he said: "I know they are about to create a Biafran Republic. I know it will not be long from now. We are all waiting to see the Republic."
Another vendor, A Ghanaian, who identified himself as Albert Leigh, said the Biafran pound was brought by one Igbo man called Emeka. He said: "It is one Igbo man that brings the money here. Whenever he is travelling, he stops by and hands over the money to money changers. I was fortunate to be around the last time he came and also got my share. What surprises me is that many of the Igbo travellers come to ask of it. I had about 500 pounds with me. I have exchanged everything for naira. I'm now left with one pound. That is the extent the trade has gone."
While disclosing that the Igbo trader brings the money from Lagos, he expressed regrets that he did not have enough to sell to this reporter.
Leigh, however, refused to disclose the cost of procuring the Biafran pound.
On Thursday morning when our reporter visited the Togo/Benin border, the trade in the Biafran currency was still going on.The vendors of the money were, however, agitated when o! ur correspondent made effort to inquire how they got the money.
One of the vendors, who identified himself simply as Isa, a Malian, told Sunday Punch that he got the money from some Nigerians, who pass through the border.
The following coversation took place between him and our reporter:
How are you, sir?
I’m fine. I get cefas, naira and pounds, which money you want?
I want Biafran pounds. Do you have it?
Yes, I get Biafran pound. It is 270 naira for one pound.
You get plenty of the biafran pounds? I wan buy plenty.
Sorry. I no get plenty. The man wen dey bring am never come for a long time now.
Where you dey get the money?
Why you dey ask? You wan to buy now?
If I no wan buy, I no go come here?
As I dey look you, you know be like person who wan buy.
I wan buym true, true. I just wan to know the source of the money.
I no know. No bi Nigerian mo! ney. I no understand you self. Why all these questions?
At that point, the man became agitated and aggressive. He said: "Oya comot here! I go call police. Comot!"
He pushed the reporter away and wanted to create a scene before the reporter quietly left the spot for fear of being molested.
A Nigerian resident at the border warned this reporter not to disclose his identity, noting that they could take him for a spy. "Since the political crisis in the country, they have been sceptical about Nigerians. So, don't ever try telling them you are a journalist. Don't ever identify yourself to any of them, they could lynch you. Those of us here have been able to get along with them because we can speak the Togolese language.
“The Malians have also been able to get along with them because they are the ones that you see in this currency business. There are some Igbo too, but they are very few compared to the Malians," he said.
Efforts to ascertain the ! level of the acceptability of the currency yielded little fruits. This reporter was able to buy a CD cassette from one of the hawkers around the border with one biafran pound, which he had exchanged for naira. He was also able to exchange another 500 pounds for N250 per pound from another hawker of the money.
There are indications that those who trade in the money don't know the implication of doing so.
One of them told Sunday Punch that the money is a Nigerian money. "It is a Nigerian money. That is why I believe in the money. Nigerians brought the money here," he said.
Investigations carried out by our correspondent revealed that the money found its way to the West Coast during the political crisis in Togo. A resident, who pleaded anonymity, told Sunday Punch that he was not aware of the money, but noted that the money was probably introduced during the Igbo Day last year in Togo.
"During the Igbo Day, the Igbo came out with a publication known as B! iafran Newspaper. Many of the Igbo resident in Togo bought the newspaper.
“That was when they must have brought the currency. But I can tell you that those who trade in it are selling it to the unsuspecting public"
Attempts to get the Ambassador of Nigeria to Togo, Mr. Aguiyi Ironsi Junior, to comment on the issue did not succeed. When Sunday Punch visited his office in Lome, he was told that the ambassador was busy preparing for the visit of President Olusegun Obasanjo to Togo. Obasanjo, according to one of the aides of the ambassador, "would be visiting Togo on Friday (last week)."
The aide expressed surprise at the Biafran currency, noting that "the issue is a very serious one."
When contacted, the head of the Nigerian community in Kelagonge, the community close to the border, Mr. Uchekchukwu Ezeife, denied any knowledge of such transaction. He, however, promised to investigate the matter. "I don't know of anything like that. I'm not aware o! f such currency. I have been in this town for the past six years and I have not come across any group or body selling Biafran pound, not to talk of using it as legal tender."
Reacting to the matter, the Senior Presidential Assistant on Public Affairs, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode, said the Federal Government is not aware of the development, adding that if the story is true, the currency is not a legal tender anywhere in the world.
He described any transaction in such currency as an “illegal” one and demanded proof that the currency was actually in circulation.
Said he: “The government is not aware of the development. What you have described as the Biafran currency is not a legal tender anywhere in the whole world. It is an illegal transaction and we do not comment on such illegal activities. We need evidence on the Biafran currency and I can assure you that the government will take appropriate actions. If it is true that the currency is in circulat! ion, it must be condemned.
“We have one country (Nigeria) and I don’t think the currency keeps any hope alive for those who till believe in any other country other than Nigeria These people are printing fake money. We can only encourage everybody to keep the hope of one Nigeria alive.”
The Deputy Director, Corporate Affairs of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Mr. Tony Ede, said it was likely that people who are using the currency only accept it as a means of exchange, adding that the currency is not a legal tender, if the story of its existence and circulation is true, in the first place.
“It is not a legal tender. May be those people are just using the currency as a means of exchange, but I doubt if the story is correct. There is no currency called “Biafran pound”. So, how will those who accept the Biafran currency recoup their money if they accept the currency as a legal tender? I doubt if it is being used at all. The CBN ha! s not heard about the currency in circulation and does not believe that the Biafran pound exists.
Meanwhile, President of Ohanaeze Youth Council and a former legislator, Nnamdi Nwokwocha, said that reports that Biafran dollars had become a legal tender in some border towns were mere speculations intended to embarrass Nigeria and discredit the President Olusegun Obasanjo administration as incompetent.
Nwokwocha,who reacted to the reports in an interview with Sunday Punch on Saturday, said there was no truth in the report, adding that it was the handiwork of mischief makers, who may want to cash in on the fallout of a recent the United States intelligence report that predicted the disintegration of the country.
“It is not true at all, there’s nothing like that.This is just mere speculations by some mischief makers, it is not true. I think some people are just trying to fly a kite to see what we happen, people who want Obasanjo out of office by all means”, he said.
Asked why Obasanjo’s enemies would fly such a kite, he said it could be to show that the claims of the recent US reports that the country may break up was true.
“You know that the US report said Nigeria may break up. These people may want to use this kind of story to show that the report is true. You also know that the agitation for Biafra is stronger abroad than at home, so they may have started the campaign from abroad”, he said
He said the sponsors of the “rumour” may be people from the South-east who were dissatisfied with the Obasanjo Presidency.
Efforts to get the top echelon of Ohanaeze Ndigbo to speak on the issue did not succeed.The secretary-general of the group, Joe Achusia,said he was not prepared to talk on the phone, and wouldn’t give the reporter an appointment.
“I don’t talk to reporters on telephone,you can check me at the office anytime but I will not give! you any appointment”, he said
Ikemba Nnewi, Dim Odimegwu Ojukwu,who has publicly admitted supporting the Biafran agitation, could also not be reached as at press time. His phone was switched off.
Additional reports from FESTUS AKANBI, TAJUDEEN SULEIMAN and KUNLE OWOLABI.